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The Problem With Obama’s Middle East Speech

How it reflects the diffidence of his world view

Who is the forty-fourth president of the United States? After two-and-a-half years, we should have a pretty good idea. But we still don’t. Barack Obama remains a canvas for the mind—a wondrous, vexing projection surface. He is a rock star and redeemer to his devotees, and a left-wing Darth Vader to his enemies. Yet, above all, he is a man of too many qualities; take your pick.

Or take his vaunted speech last week on North Africa and the Middle East. Advertised as a groundbreaking statement of policies and principles, it is in fact a basket of goodies—delicious or rotten ones, depending on who is tasting. Just look at the Israeli and Arab responses. Benjamin Netanyahu hated the speech, and said so in polite diplo-speak. Yet Gideon Levy, a leftish commentator for Ha’aretz, thinks it was a boon to Bibi, who can “now sigh with relief” that there won’t be a “diplomatic tsunami” because the U.S. “stands firmly by Israel.” Arabs, meanwhile, aren’t exactly rejoicing. “The Arab world doesn’t need any democracy lessons,” growled Hamas spokesman Abu Suhri. A Saudi wit, Suleiman Al Osaimi paid Obama a scathing compliment: “I like the way he speaks. What he says, however, is of little interest. When … you go back to the speech … you will soon realize that he has said nothing of consequence. They are mere words strung together in a nice way …every word is delivered smoothly and there is lot of clapping at the end, nothing else.”

On the one hand, Obama breaks with every U.S. president since the Six Day War by calling for a settlement with the Palestinians “based on the 1967 lines.” That is more than the fabled U.N. Resolution 242 demanded from Israel, which spoke about “withdrawal from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” not from all of them. Israel should also stop expanding the settlements. So why aren’t they yelling “four more years!” in Ramallah? Because Obama giveth and taketh. “Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure,” he said. Isolation at the U.N. “won’t create an independent state.” As to the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, how could Israel “negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” Palestine should be “sovereign,” but “non-militarized.” And “no peace can be imposed”—not by the U.S., not by anybody else.

Nice principles if you can get them, but not exactly what the Palestinians have in mind. Fine principles also suffuse the president’s perorations on the wider conflict, the one between the Arab peoples and their overlords from Tripoli to Damascus to Bahrain. The question, as Obama put it, is “what role America will play as this story unfolds.” Right. What follows is a delicious potpourri of desirables—well-balanced cadences of the yes-but kind.

If there is an “Obama Doctrine,” it is “choosy engagement.” America does value the “dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia [who immolated himself in protest] more than the raw power of the dictator.” But the president also wants “no regime change by force,” and, when we do use force, he wants it to be only where it looks easy and the rest of the world approves—as in Libya. Syria, on the other hand, isn’t easy, and so we won’t intervene. We’ll admonish little Bahrain, home of the Fifth Fleet, but we won’t even mention Saudi Arabia, a royal kleptocracy that happens to be sitting on the world’s largest keg of oil and America’s first line of defense against Iran.

Obama also said, “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” But with “humility,” of course. And with realism. Who wouldn’t applaud? And, to be fair to Obama, statecraft is always a tightrope act between what is and what should be, between strategic interests and moral imperatives. But statecraft is also about priorities. And this is where we are back in front of the vast canvas that is the forty-fourth president. He keeps inviting us to draw our own picture—there is enough space for us all. A bit of liberal interventionism, a bit of hard-core strategic interest; a bit of American power and a bit of “humility”; an optimistic view of history, which stumbles ahead in the right direction, and a realistic take on men and nations, which takes due notice of unreason and conflict. So “change of this magnitude doesn’t come easily.”

American political rhetoric is always about cadences that oscillate between the lofty and the profane, yet all of Obama’s predecessors since FDR have weighted their baskets in favor of American power and principle. Obama’s America, however, is turning from leader to facilitator, from agent to observer of history, who might wade in, or might not. Obama sounds not one uncertain trumpet, but too many of them. So why would anybody listen? Diffidence does not deliver.

Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg Germany. He is also a senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.

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